One shift, Roz and I worked alone. That night, there were only two patients in the pediatric intensive care unit. Roz was charge nurse. I sat at the console charting, with the hypnotic QRS tracings of sinus rhythm in the background. Roz charted at another desk by the door. The door opened and a man I’d never seen before entered. He walked past Roz, to me. He identified himself as the pediatrician for Roz’s patient, and asked who was the charge nurse.
“Roz is in charge. She’s taking care of your patient.”
He continued addressing his questions to me. “How’s my patient? What’s his blood pressure?” “I don’t know,” I reinforced, “Roz is your patient’s nurse, and she has his chart. She can answer your questions.” I looked quizzically to Roz, who briefly looked up, then put her head down, intent on charting. The doctor continued. “I want to know the I and O. Is the patient getting enough pain medication? Are his parents around?” I didn’t get it. I remained confused until Roz walked over and handed me the chart. Suddenly, I understood. My anger flared then turned into a cold lump in my stomach. I had to control my voice as I answered his questions from the chart.
Roz nursed circles around me. I owed it to her that I was in the PICU and this physician wouldn’t talk to her because of the color of her skin. I only spoke to him because of his patient, a child. He scribbled some orders, gave me the chart, and left. I felt traumatized by his overt racism, and because he directed it towards Roz, my friend. The cold lump in my belly morphed into nausea.
“Roz, I’m so sorry. He’s an ass.” Her eyes betrayed her feelings, but her words were calm. “Jules, I don’t blame white people for this. That fool is an ornery, nasty soul no matter what color his skin is.”
Decades later, Dr. Racist remains a painful memory. Dr. Racist was never seen again in the PICU. He was a blip on our screen, nothing more. His disappearance prevented Roz and I from doing more than complain to management.
Becoming a nurse is an ongoing process. Certainly, a nurse’s expertise grows through attainment of knowledge and skills, but it is more than that. Becoming a nurse also includes learning when to speak up and when to let something roll off your shoulders. Like everything else she taught me, Roz was better skilled at this than I. I am not a qualified authority on racism in nursing, but the National Black Nurses Association, and minoritynurse.com are two educational resources by people who are.
My treatment by Sister Sebastian was workplace bullying. What happened to Roz is workplace bullying taken to its sinister extreme. It is so universal that the successful TV comedy series The Office uses it for its premise. However, when nurses experience workplace bullying, we are usually in the midst of work requiring responsibility for the safety of others. It’s hard to stand up to rude or disruptive comments when your patient’s condition is rapidly deteriorating or you are in a patient care area. Bullies know this, and use it to their advantage. I think this is what makes workplace bullying particularly demoralizing for nurses: often, we must choose between defending ourselves and protecting our patients.
I have one strategy, developed over the years, which I find effective. When I overhear a coworker berated by another in either language or tone of voice, I go stand next to that person. Usually my quiet presence is enough to cause the offending person to stop. Occasionally it is not, and the offender asks, “What do you want? Why are you here?” I reply, “I’m just wondering if everything is okay over here. Do you realize everyone can hear you?” So far, this has always stopped the abuse. It’s particularly effective if more than one nurse stands by.
Becoming a nurse is an ongoing process. I am still learning.